The Shire Valley has always been infested with mosquitoes so much so that malaria cases became a norm other than an exception, but engaging traditional leaders in the fight has brought some change. CHARLES SIMANGO explores the reasons why chiefs are making a difference in the malaria fight.
Pouring out of the bottom tip of Lake Malawi, the Shire River travels some 184 kilometres, dropping a total of 380 metres in a series of rapids and waterfalls, before slowing down and broadening out into a wide flood plain in the Shire Valley. Here, like a mammoth serpent, the Shire, painfully meanders across the flatland, leaving vast marshes in its wake as it strains to meet up with the mighty Zambezi River, some 160 kilometres further down.
The banks of the Shire are awash with life, but nowhere along the Shire is there so much flora and fauna like the Shire Valley. Hundreds of animals along with dozens of fish, marine and bird species populate the riverbanks and marshes -joined by countless mosquitoes.
There is probably no place in Malawi that has a concentration of mosquitoes as high as the Shire Valley where the slow moving Shire and its attendant marshes, coupled with the sweltering heat, provide the most ideal breeding ground.
“Try staying here in the evening and you will hear a low, humming sound coming from the Shire. Visitors to this area actually think the Shire makes a sound but it is actually the mosquitoes, congregating, mating and fanning out upland into our homes,” says Group Village Headman Chiphwembwe, whose village is located some 700 metres from Dindi Marsh, one of the Shire’s several marshes.
“Growing up here, you learn to cope with the mosquitoes and it all becomes an accepted part of what the Shire has to offer,” says the chief, pointing out that the river not only gives them fish but it also gives them crocodiles and mosquitoes.
The chief says communities around the Shire have been coping against mosquitoes by using several ways of repelling the insects with smoking being the most popular method.
“There are a lot of cattle in this area so smoking mosquitoes using cow dung is the most popular method used here. We also use fumasa, which is done by pilling green grass on top of dry, burning grass. Because the green grass does not burn as quickly as the dry one, you end up with a lot of smoke,” says the chief.
According to Chief Chiphwembwe, the smoking method is somewhat effective in repelling mosquitoes but the challenge is that, normally, the source of smoke quickly burns out and the mosquitoes come back with vengeance.
As a result, malaria cases are rampant in the area, something the area has been contending with for ages.
But this all changed in 2012, when a local drama group came to the area to teach people about prevention and treatment of malaria focusing on the use of mosquito nets.
“It was under that tree, over there. They talked about using treated mosquito nets. I stood up and told them in their face that while malaria may be a problem, here, we have always been able to cope using traditional ways. I also told them that we hear rumours that the nets affected men’s sexual performance and besides, it is hot around here, what would happen if one sleeps under a net—you get cooked!”
While the drama group tried to address his concerns about nets, the chief was not convinced.
Then, a few months later, all the chiefs in the area were called for a meeting by the district office of the Anglican Diocese of Lake Malawi, which, at that time, had initiated a project aimed at mobilising communities to undertake activities to address the health challenges. The project was implemented in Nsanje in partnership with SSDI Communication with support from USAID.
“I thought they just wanted us to go and drink Coca Cola’” says the chief regarding the meeting.
“They took us into the hall where they talked about malaria and that they will soon give out nets to help curb malaria infections. My fellow chiefs and I reiterated that nets were not for us but they challenged us to give the nets a try as long as we promised not to misuse them or sell to fishermen as we used to do,” he says.
True to their word, a few months later, the chief was asked to call all his subordinate chiefs to come and collect the nets.
“The distribution was done right, here, behind my house. All 12 chiefs under me came with their subjects and every household received 1 or 2 nets depending on the size of the family,” he said.
According to the chief, the people of the area started using the nets and, to everyone’s surprise, they were comfortable to sleep under and above all effective! It was not hot under the nets as they assumed except for the fact that Nsanje is hot, anyway. There were no more mosquito bites at night and according to the chief, men’s performance was not affected.
Says the chief:
“I have not heard a single complaint let alone a marital case brought before me or any chief where mosquito nets are blamed for affecting men’s performance in bed.”
Since then, Malaria infections in the area have dropped tremendously. It is now two years since the nets were distributed and most of them are torn and unusable.
The chief says that those who can afford to buy new nets are doing so, but the clinics are still issuing free nets to pregnant women. The chief says he encourages his people to continue using nets, saying the area has seen a reduction in deaths emanating from malaria since people started sleeping under mosquito nets. The chief has also instituted by-laws to deter people from misusing the nets, failing to seek prompt treatment and other behaviors with negative health impacts.
“Using mosquito nets for fishing or gardening, delivering a baby at home, delaying or failing to take sick children to hospital are all punishable offences in this area. We have also set up a committee of women that goes around the villages ensuring that all expectant mothers are attending antenatal clinic and are not delivering at home. A few have paid fines for violating these by laws,” says the Chief.
Chief Chiphwembwe says his commitment to fighting malaria was further cemented after a mute campaigner came to the area to teach people about malaria prevention.
“It was interesting to see someone talk in sign language and an interpreter being able to translate what he was saying. He told us that sign language is a language like any other. But more interesting was the message that he brought. He told us that he became disabled at the age of 15 years after a malaria attack and he encouraged us to do whatever is required to prevent malaria. I was really touched,” he says.